Top-seeded Giants an enigma heading into playoffs

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants are entering the playoffs as somewhat of an enigma.

While they are the NFC's top-seeded team, they have not been playing like the conference's best team heading into Sunday's conference semifinal against the Philadelphia Eagles (10-6-1) at Giants Stadium.

New York (12-4) has lost three of its last four games, and the only game they won in December came in overtime against No. 2-seeded Carolina after the Panthers' John Kasey missed a field goal at the end of regulation.

The scenario is nothing like a year ago when the Giants gained a ton of momentum by pushing the then-undefeated New England Patriots to the limit in the regular-season finale. It was a performance that proved to the team that they could play with the best, and Eli Manning and Co. rode it to a title.

This year there are just question marks, starting with Philadelphia. The Eagles beat the Giants 20-14 in December in a game that was not as close as the final score.

The Giants' win over Philadelphia came in November, which seems ages ago.

The Eagles, meanwhile, seemingly have all the momentum, having won five of their last six games, capped by an impressive playoff-clinching win over Dallas in the regular-season finale and another over Minnesota in the wild-card game last weekend.

Giants center Shaun O'Hara said that the team doesn't feel like it has played poorly, and he conveniently downplays the comparisons with last season.

"Obviously we did a great job last year, but this is a whole new ball game," O'Hara said. "Momentum, fine, whatever it is, confidence, whatever that is, the bottom line is it is the team that wants it more, the team that plays harder on Sunday and makes the plays. That is really the challenge this week. It is going to be, can we do the things that we have done in big games in order to win?"

What the Giants need to do this time against Philadelphia is run the ball, prevent Brian Westbrook and Donovan McNabb from making big plays and to make their own big plays.

In the last game, Domenik Hixon, who has replaced the now suspended Plaxico Burress as the Giants' deep threat, dropped a deep pass from Manning after getting behind the Eagles' defense.

"Being the 2007 Super Bowl champions does not scare anybody, obviously," middle linebacker Antonio Pierce said. "For us, it is about going out there and getting our swagger back, getting that chip on our shoulder, listening to all these critics and opinion makers who have their say on what is going to happen or what did happen and go out there and play football."

Coach Tom Coughlin said that no one was happy losing three times in December. He noted, however, that the team spent the bye week correcting mistakes.

"The regular season is over, whatever the numbers might be," Coughlin said. "We have been cast into a situation where we had the bye. You heard me say that I thought the bye was good for our team. I don't know that I would necessarily say that every year. In this case, I thought it was. And so therefore we worked, we studied, and had an opportunity to have a weekend without a game and now we are back to work."

The Giants are 5-2 in postseason games following a bye since the 1970 merger. The only losses were the 1989 divisional playoff game to the Los Angeles Rams in overtime and to Baltimore in Super Bowl 35.

New York has been well tested this season. Of the eight teams left in the playoffs, the Giants have wins over five -- Philadelphia, Carolina, Arizona, Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

Pierce said the Giants understand the meaning of games in January.

"We are playing a team that we just faced not more than a month ago, so there is no need to do any pep rally and get up there and do jumping jacks or anything else crazy," Pierce said. "We just need to go out there and practice, be focused mentally and physically to be prepared to get a win."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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